Air Force Offers Fighter Pilots $225,000 Signing Bonus

Fighter pilots were once considered such glamorous gigs that Tom Cruise played one in the hit Hollywood movie, "Top Gun." But now, three decades later, the U.S. Air Force is experiencing such a dire shortage that it's guaranteeing a $225,000 signing bonus -- $25,000 a year for nine years.

The Air Force says it is down 200 fighter pilots this year. On top of that, just 65 percent of the pilots are staying on the job past 11 years, which is a 15 percent drop off from 1993, according to the Air Force Times. As a result, the Air Force projects that it could be short some 700 pilots by 2021. Such a shortfall represents roughly one quarter of the total 3,000 flyer pilots in the Air Force.

Low wages to blame
Analysts point to the wage disparity between the military pilots and those working in the private sector. As the Los Angeles Times reports, it takes 11 years of service for a fighter pilot to achieve an annual salary of $90,000. The median wage for airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers, however, stands at $114,200, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The new signing bonus is aimed to level the playing field.


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A decade of wars exacts a toll
In total, 6,737 Americans have died in combat during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the online tracker, iCasualties.org. And nearly 12 years after the attacks of September 11, squadrons are still deploying, returning and then redeploying to the Middle Easte theatre. "People have no idea how hard it is when you have to move your family all the time," John Wigle, a former F-15 fighter pilot and current program analyst in the Air Force's operations department, told the L.A. Times. "Military life is not for everyone."

As the wars wind down, the Air Force predicts the number of combat missions will decline in the coming years. "In years past, we couldn't execute all of our peacetime training flying hours that was a requirement because we were deployed too much," Gen. Hawk Carlisle told the Air Force Times. "As things draw down... we'll increase home-station flying hours and concentrate on that."

Indeed, the drive to boost the number of fighter pilots comes at a time when the Army, for one, is drawing down its total number of active duty soldiers, as the Associated Press reported. At the height of the Iraq War, the Army had 570,000 active duty soldiers, but plans to lower the number to 490,000 by 2017. In its bid to cut the size of the force, it has even stopped accepting recruits with criminal or substance abuse records.

The Air Force has successfully used money to bring in more fighter pilots in the past. In 1989, the Air Force introduced a similar program, called the Aviator Retention Program. "Were it not for the program, there would be a greater problem than the one we currently have," Lt. Col. Kurt Konopatzke, who oversees the program, also told the Los Angeles daily.

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